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Enough Is Enough: Gambella, Ethiopia Update

October 1, 2012
By: Nickolas Johnson

Beatings, rape, and torture have become the new normal for many living in the Gambella region of Ethiopia. New reporting by Human Rights Watch (HRW), sheds light on the current living conditions of Ethiopians in the Gambella region as a result of the government’s villagization program. Marred in human rights abuses in the aftermath of an unfortunate shooting that left five Saudi Star employees dead this June, the Ethiopian government has retaliated with arbitrary arrests, beatings, and rape. While it is still unknown who perpetrated the killings, one man interviewed who claimed to be part of the attack stated that the attack was in “retaliation for the land leasing by Saudi Star and other foreign investors in Gambella region.” Through a series interviews, HRW’s new report adds to an already disturbing understanding of what has transpired in wake of the government awarding a 60-year, 10,000 hectare (ha) lease to Saudi Star along the Alwero River in the Gambella region. Oakland Institute (OI) and HRW have done extensive research in the Gambella region and this new report shows a continued pattern of abuse by the government.



Since the beginning of the investment by Saudi Star, the investment has been marred in dispute, conflict, and now, unfortunately, violence.  In June of 2011, OI reported on forced relocation, the possible damming of the Alwero river, and clearing of invaluable forest areas.  As part of the villagization program, more than 1.5 million residents of Ethiopia (225,000 people in Gambella) have begun or will begin relocating away from their ancestral lands. Contrary to wide reporting, the Ethiopian government has stated that the relocation is voluntary and necessary to centralize infrastructure. While centralizing infrastructure sounds like a worthy ideal in principal, reporting by both OI and HRW has shown throughout the whole villagization process, citizens are being raped, beaten, and jailed by local and national government forces to clear land for foreign investors.


Rape. Torture. Jail.

The series of interviews with residents of Gambella as well as people who have recently fled to South Sudan show that accounts of rape from women and girls were all too common. These acts were committed either in their homes or while under detention when unable to find their male relatives. For those men who said they were detained, stories of frequent beatings with rifle butts, sticks, and even the forcing of a man to walk on hot coals until he “blistered half way up his calves” have been reported.

One man spoke of having his toenails forcibly removed inside the Saudi Star compound for not providing information to local police. In another instance, a local officer recalls being arrested by soldiers and sent to military barracks to be tied up and beaten. After he was released, soldiers beat him unconscious in front of his wife. Afterwards, according to his wife, they proceeded to “beat their four year old son in front of them.” They have since fled to South Sudan.


Forced Removal

Though touted as voluntary, Ethiopia’s villagization program has shown time after time that the government is systematically forcing the removal of citizens. In the most recent example, a 17-year-old girl who had recently fled Abobo woreda for South Sudan explained that after her father refused to move from their farm, he was killed. She has not seen her sister or husband since.

Further evidence of regional and state government coordination of forceable removals comes from the former committee head responsible for villagization in Gog woreda. He told HRW: “I was told [by regional officials] to make the community aware of the need to move. All the responses from the people were rejections, they did not like it. We went back and did our report [to the regional parliament] that they did not want to go. Parliament blamed me and said, ‘Why do you tell us this? Go do it by force.’ [A senior state official] said this to me directly. We then went with the military and did it by force.”


Turning a Blind Eye

Instead of taking HRW’s and others’ claims seriously, stating their intent to investigate these horrible acts, the owner of Saudi Star Agriculture, Mohammed Al-Amoud, flatly denies all reporting by HRW and boldly states that “It would like to remind interested parties that any government security activity must be seen in the context of a murderous attack by persons unknown on Saudi Star personnel on April 28th, 2012.” While Al-Amoud states that his company would not condone such abuses stated by HRW, would actions such as the Ethiopian soldiers’ shooting and killing of four of the company’s Anuak guards the day after the attack be tolerable if done in the “context” of the shooting? What about the other stated abuses?


A Plea To The World Bank

In an attempt to end these human rights abuses, Anuak leaders submitted a complaint to World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim on September 16th. In the letter, the Anuak leaders tell of families arriving daily in Kenyan refugee camps. They go on to say that the refugees believe there is a concerted effort by the military, police, and judges to forcibly remove them from their land in a project deemed voluntary. The complaint calls for a full investigation into the Protection for Basic Services (PBS), for the World Bank to condemn the forced relocation, and to stop direct and indirect support of the villagization program. They are hoping to delay approval of the PBS Phase III until after the World Bank Inspection Panel has completed an investigation and can ensure that the rights of the Anuak people are respected. Without a World Bank investigation and the implementation of safeguards, there will surely be furthered human rights abuses, intimidation, and killings of Anuaks by the Ethiopian government.


Stop Human Rights Violations through Forcing “Villagization” on People

The Oakland Institute stands with HRW and the Anuak people in urging the Ethiopian government to stop the arbitrary arrests, beatings, and intimidation of Gambella residents and to release those who have been arbitrarily detained. Furthermore, we urge the World Bank to fully investigate these claims and to stop all direct or indirect support for the program.

As more is known, transparency, accountability, and justice must be at the forefront for the Ethiopian government and Saudi Star.  Actions like this must not be tolerated and anyone involved within these atrocities must be persecuted.

The Oakland Institute is dedicated to keeping you updated on the villagization process in Ethiopia. Please check regularly for new developments.


* Nickolas Johnson is a Research Associate at the Oakland Institute and is currently focusing on land investment deals, food security, human rights, and the environment. Nickolas previously worked in Washington D.C. for Oxfam America where he worked on its food justice campaign, GROW. He also lead over 2,000 Bay Area constituents for Oxfam’s Action Corps, which focuses on grassroots advocacy.